In the Seventies fewer than 10 per cent of musicians in major US orchestras were women. Auditioners claimed that there was a simple reason: men are better performers.
Then someone had a neat idea: conduct auditions behind a curtain so that selectors are unaware of the gender of the performer.
The number of women suddenly started increasing, reaching 40 per cent today.
This example reveals the power of subconscious stereotyping. Judgments often tumble out of our brains not because of evidence, but according to covert assumptions that permeate the way that we view the world.
Women are often disadvantaged by this tendency. The unspoken idea that they are weaker, more fragile, less logical (and less capable of performing in orchestras) means that they are not selected for jobs for which they are, in fact, superbly qualified.
Sophisticated companies today use software programmes to mitigate these tendencies, blinding themselves to demographic information such as gender, race and socioeconomic background. This is progressive because it means that instead of recruiting according to arbitrary characteristics, they are recruiting on ability. This helps women, but also boosts business performance. Organisations, orchestras or otherwise, are detecting talent regardless of what it looks like.
And this brings me to the decision by the Norwegian FA to pay women footballers the same as their male counterparts for international matches.
The money paid to the women’s team will almost double from 3.1 million krone (£296,845) to 6 million krone (£574,540).
This includes the equivalent of £47,875 volunteered by male players, paid for by their commercial activities.
Now this might seem like an enlightened step towards gender equality (as well as a generous offer from the male players), but it is, in fact, the opposite.
The key principle in employment equality is meritocracy. People should be recruited according to ability rather than gender. They should also be paid the same rate for the same job.
But Norwegian male footballers are effectively doing a different job. In economic terms, they are more productive, persuading more fans and TV viewers to watch them, and more companies to sponsor them. To equalise pay in these circumstances is not about removing gender from pay considerations; it is about artificially introducing it. Less productive women are, in effect, receiving a subsidy.
This might not be so worrying, except for the knock-on effect. For the act of providing a subsidy carries the implication that women cannot stand on their own two feet. They cannot make it without patronage. Artificial pay equality in sport, far from symbolising the strength and dynamism of women, bolsters the subliminal biases that are the biggest obstacle to their progress in society.
Billie Jean King brought female tennis into the spotlight in the Seventies not by asking for handouts from male players, but by marketing the new tour to the masses. In the early Nineties, Steffi Graf was earning more than Pete Sampras because her rivalry with Monica Seles and, previously, Martina Navratilova was more entertaining than the one-dimensional fare being served up by the men. Women should be paid the same as men if they are doing the same job. In tennis, women were doing a better job. They deserved to earn more.
This is why the logic of equal pay for different jobs is so incoherent. If international football teams should be paid the same, why not clubs? Why not equalise the pay of Manchester City’s men, who play to millions around the world, and their female counterparts, who do not (the average attendance in the Women’s Super League in 2016 was 1,128)? Why not force Naomi Campbell to cross-subsidise male models who earn significantly less? These examples are merely illustrative. They do not do full justice to the sheer unintelligibility of pursuing gender equality through diktats that increase the very biases they purport to combat.
You see the same story with quotas, another arbitrary approach to equality, which do not work in developed nations. Norwegians ought to understand this better than most. In 2003, they introduced quotas requiring 40 per cent of board members of public companies to be women. What happened? Share prices dropped by 3.5 per cent. With people promoted on gender rather than ability, companies became less effective. As one study put it: “Quotas led to less-experienced boards, increases in leverage and acquisitions, and deterioration in operating performance.”
But the secondary effect was even more insidious — it entrenched subconscious bias. The quota carried the insinuation that women cannot make it on merit, and need an artificial hand-up. The glass ceiling was not shattered but strengthened. Moreover, women who were promoted on merit were forced to endure the unspoken smear that they were beneficiaries of tokenism. There was no boost in overall women’s pay or the number of women wishing to enter these organisations.
I spoke recently at a conference for female board members of companies. The vast majority were firmly against quotas. They could see the subtle damage such policies do to all women. They were also, unsurprisingly, against arbitrary edicts such as equal pay in sport, whether at Wimbledon or anywhere else. They are not interested in virtue-signalling; they wish to see a world where people are paid according to merit, not gender.
To take a different example: imagine trying to reduce ageism by mandating that the seniors champion at grand-slam events earns the same prize money as Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray. Would this “progressive symbolism” help, say, a brilliant software designer in his fifties seeking promotion? Or would it insinuate that the only way that older people can get ahead is through artificial subsidy and reverse discrimination? It is not a policy; it is a gimmick.
It is worth emphasising that the problem of the gender pay gap is not a small rump of bigots who make jokes about women doing the ironing; it is people like me and you. Many of the most famous orchestra directors in the Seventies were progressives convinced that they were recruiting according to quality of music. Only when the auditions were performed behind a curtain did they realise that they were rejecting women for inferior males. In other words, they had been blind to their own biases.
This is where policy should be targeted. Blind selection works. Using data rather than subjective intuition (which is often riddled with biases) on promotion decisions works. Publicising women who make it to the top on merit, increasing the salience of these role models, works in spades. All of these policies improve outcomes for women as well as the organisations in which they operate.
Quotas and subsidies are not just a distraction, but a menace. They signal the virtue of those who propose them, but do not help those they purport to assist. This may seem a little ungracious to the Norwegian FA and male players, whose motives are wholly admirable. But as the economist Milton Friedman said: “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programmes by their intentions rather than their results”.